Tuesday, January 28, 1986. Even though the door to the broadcast studio was open, I didn’t hear the 10 bells on the Associated Press machine. It was stashed in a closet a room away, busily churning out reams of news that we rarely took time to read. Ten bells meant a catastrophe, a national emergency of some sort.
I was the announcer for Morning Concert that day in the WSVH-FM 91 studios in downtown Savannah. It was called Georgia Public Radio back then and most of our programming was live.
Morning Concert ran from 9 a.m. until 1. The Space Shuttle Challenger was to be launched that morning around 11:30, but we weren’t paying much attention. Space shuttle blast-offs had become routine. True, this expedition was to include the first schoolteacher in space – the smiling, courageous Christa McAuliffe.
Larry Roberts, the station manager, had heard the bells. He came to the studio door with a scrap of flimsy newsprint in his hand, the edges blurred and soft where he had torn it from the machine. His eyes were large as he silently handed me the paper. He watched my face as I read the single line: “The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff at Cape Canaveral this morning.”
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I read it twice. After takeoff. The crew was probably dead. Christa McAuliffe was dead.
I looked at Larry for a long moment, then faded the Mozart piece that was playing. I switched on the mic and said, “We’re sorry to interrupt this piece, but we have received some news from the Associated Press that we think you’ll be interested in.”
Then, I read the statement. I read it twice, because I knew listeners would react as I had.
There was nothing else to be said, nothing to do but gently turn the knob on the console and resume the Mozart piece.
On the streets outside the quiet studio a clamor was growing. News organizations were gearing up. Three hundred miles to the south of Savannah, rescue boats were racing to the scene. We would find out later that a weak O-ring, something we had never heard of, had caused the explosion.
I kept the scrap of paper Larry handed me on that January day in 1986. The few words marked a moment that united us, our gazes transfixed by repeated images of the orange fireball and exploding streams of white smoke. We thought of the children watching Christa McAuliffe’s much-anticipated venture into space, and our hearts broke.
Larger-scale national tragedies lay in our future, attacks rooted in hatred, uniting us in fear and a thirst for justice. But 30 years ago, our grief was innocent. The explosion of the Challenger was a horrific experience, but looking back, our sorrow felt clean.
O-rings can be weak but not malevolent. Faulty, but ultimately fixable.
It was a different world.
Megathlin is a writer living in Savannah, Georgia.